In 1916 Amelia Joel Mihlenstedt found herself under arrest by the British Government, accused of being a spy. This story was researched and submitted by Clare Woolger, a descendant of Amelia Mihlenstedt, who lives in East Sussex.
The Home Office form, pictured below, relates to Amelia Joel born around 1847. Neither myself nor others who have researched the Milhenstedt family tree can find any record of her birth and this is what caused the issues. Her father (Godfrey Joel) was a traveller and this may be where the lack of registration comes from.
During WW1 Amelia was living in Leytonstone, East London, and by the time of her contact with the Home Office, was a widow. She had married Cord Mihlenstedt who was born in Hanover, Germany, and had settled in West Ham some time before the 1871 census. The limited Home Office paperwork that is accessible suggests that because she had no proof of her birth and could not produce much in the way of proof of having grown up in the UK she was suspected of being a German and, therefore, an “enemy alien”.
As a result of this Amelia appears to have been placed under house arrest for the duration of the war.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the British Government required all non-British nationals over the age of 16 living in the country to sign the Alien Register. This document allowed the British to hold the details of anyone they suspected of being a German spy or a threat to national security during the war.
As a result, more than 32,000 ‘alien’ men were kept in internment camps for the duration of the conflict with 28,744 being deported at the conclusion of the war. The majority of these were Germans.
If the British Government believed that Amelia had either avoided signing the register or lied about her details within it they may well have sentenced her to immediate imprisonment. It is possible that her advanced age saved her from relocation to one of the internment camps in favour of being detained at home.
With a surname like Mihlenstedt it is not surprising that my mother (Sheila) questioned her father Leonard John about where the name came from. He apparently was rather dismissive of the possibility of it being German. He recounted a story that one of his school masters had questioned the origins of his surname and he returned home to ask his mother and father (Christopher and Margaret – see family tree on the right) who said they didn’t know but they thought it to be Dutch or possibly Hungarian.
This appears to be a very strange answer considering Christopher must have known that his father was German and also that his mother was under house arrest during the war. This may even have actually been at the same time that Leonard had come home from school having been asked what nationality he was.
Although a local man named John William Green attempted to vouch for the character of Amelia, this was apparently not enough to halt the investigation into her.
In 1915 German zeppelin airships repeatedly bombed the town of Leytonstone and killed three men and one woman and left others severely injured. This event may have stoked anti-German sentiment within the town and driven the hunt for spies.
It’s a very sad thing to see the ‘X’ as a signature at the bottom of the Home Office statement and the thought that this, probably not very bright woman, may have had little idea as to what was going on and the initial knock at the door must have been terrifying.
On the other hand, she may have been a spy!
This story was submitted by Claire Woolger, Secretary for the Crowborough & District Chamber Of Commerce